Experiencing hearing loss can be challenging, frustrating, and confusing. But the good news is you’re not alone—close to 48 million Americans report experiencing some degree of hearing loss. That’s why there are plenty of resources out there to help you tackle the issue head-on. Hearing care professionals, audiologists, can help you learn what you need to get the best outcome.
When researching hearing loss, you may come across information on both hearing aids and hearing amplifiers, what are they, how do they work, how are they different, and which one is right for you? We’ll go over that and more in this post. Generally speaking, hearing aids are the gold standard for treating hearing loss as they can be programmed to address specific frequencies you have trouble hearing. Hearing amplifiers literally amplify every sound you hear with no customization.
What are hearing amplifiers?
Finding a solution for your hearing loss is of the utmost importance, but so is the need to know as much as you can about the treatments you are looking into, to ensure you’re doing what’s best for your health, not your wallet. Hearing amplifiers, or Personal sound amplification products (PSAPs), are devices that can be purchased over the counter without a prescription, with prices ranging from $15 to $500. They are not designed to correct hearing loss. PSAPs are not FDA approved and can be purchased without your ever having to undergo a hearing evaluation. Because hearing amplifiers are regulated as consumer electronics and not as medical devices, they are not tested for safety and effectiveness by the FDA like hearing aids are.
Unlike hearing aids, PSAPs are a “one-size-fits-all” device, not programmable to address your specific hearing loss. Some more advanced models offer different settings, like low- and high-mode amplification, varying volume levels, noise reduction capabilities, and different settings to choose from depending on your environment. At the end of the day, hearing amplifiers are just that, devices that amplify every and all sounds to the wearer, which is why it is not the most effective way to address hearing loss. Making everything louder is the not way to address hearing loss, but addressing the specific areas where hearing loss is noted is.
What Are Hearing Amplifiers Used For?
Hearing amplifiers, or Personal sound amplification products (PSAPs), are not designed to treat hearing loss. Rather, they were designed to help people with normal hearing ability, or hearing thresholds of 20 dB or better in both ears, perform better in recreational activities. If you’re experiencing hearing loss and it’s having an impact on your day-to-day life, do not get PSAPs. Visit an audiologist first for a hearing exam to find out exactly what is going on.
PSAPs are made up of a few components, a microphone, speaker, amplifiers, volume controller, and a power source. Very simply, the microphone captures the sound and changes it into an electrical signal. Then, the amplifier works to increase the extent and range of its signal. Finally, the speaker changes the signal back to a sound wave and that’s what you hear. The volume control allows you to turn it up or down, depending on your needs. That’s why PSAPs are the perfect tool for the recreational activities they were designed for, like:
- Hunting – Hunters can amplify sounds out in the field to improve their chances of knowing when a target is close by.
- Bird watching – Amplifiers may help a birder hear a bird far off taking flight, or birds nearby who blend in with the background.
- Attending performances – Whether listening to an academic lecture, watching the local community theater, or the best man’s toast at the wedding, sounds will be amplified to help with hearing.
While hearing amplifiers are great for these tasks, they are not addressing hearing loss directly. More importantly, they are not designed to be worn at all times. They amplify all sounds, which means they could be really uncomfortable, even damaging in certain situations. Imagine a football game, with a loud crowd, people cheering, and constant noise, all loud and directly in your ears – sounds pretty awful, doesn’t it?
Hearing Aids VS Hearing Amplifiers
Hearing aids are designed to address hearing loss directly and are programmable to each person’s specific needs. Hearing amplifiers, or Personal sound amplification products (PSAPs), were designed for people with normal hearing to perform better in certain activities, like hunting. Aside from the fundamental difference in what they were designed for, hearing aids and PSAPs differ in a variety of other ways too.
Customization: Hearing aids are programmed to address the wearer’s specific needs, with differences not only in volume but frequencies too. They also come in a variety of styles, types, and colors. PSAPs typically come in a one-size-fits-all design, with close to no customization other than volume control.
Prescription: To purchase hearing aids, you need a prescription from an audiologist, but PSAPs can be bought over the counter.
Regulation: Hearing aids are medical devices, which means they are regulated by the FDA. Hearing amplifiers are not.
Cost: Hearing aids usually cost around $4,000, PSAPs fall in the range of $15 – $500.
What you get: With hearing aids, the user not only gets amplified sound but more clarity too. PSAPs only make audio louder, not clearer.
Hearing Aids and How They Work
Hearing aids are small electronic devices that can be placed in or behind the ear to help with hearing loss. There are two kinds of hearing aids, analog and digital.
Analog hearing aids convert sound waves into electrical signals and then amplify the sound. These hearing aids provide a variety of options for the user to choose from based on the environment, like an empty room versus a crowded stadium.
Digital hearing aids convert sound waves into numerical codes before amplifying the sound. Because sound waves are converted into a numerical code, information on pitch and loudness can also be captured. This allows for the programming of different frequencies at different amounts and can even focus on sounds coming from a specific direction.
There are three main types of hearing aids, Behind-the-Ear (BTE), In-the-Ear (ITE), and Canal.
- BTE: These hearing aids are made of a hard plastic case that is worn behind the ear and is connected to an earmold that fits inside the ear. These can be used with people suffering from mild to profound hearing loss.
- ITE: These aids fit snugly inside the outer ear, and can be used to treat mild to severe hearing loss.
- Canal: There are two options, the In-The-Canal (ITC) or Completely-In-Canal (CIC) hearing aids. They both fit into the ear canal and are used to treat mild to moderately severe hearing loss. Because they are small, these aids are difficult to adjust or remove without the help of an audiologist.
Acquiring Hearing Aids
Hearing aids can only be purchased with a prescription from an audiologist or Ear, Nose, and Throat specialist. This means that before getting access to hearing aids, adults must undergo a hearing test. Seeing an audiologist to be fitted for hearing aids will ensure you’ve had a thorough examination and are being provided with all the tools you need to treat your hearing loss effectively. However, if a person over the age of 18 is purchasing over-the-counter (OTC) hearing aids, no prescription is necessary.
The FDA is in the midst of proposing a new OTC category for hearing aids that would help expand access to people over the age of 18. These hearing aids are designed to help people with mild to moderate hearing loss.
- Mild: You may hear some speech and sounds, but not others.
- Moderate: You may hear almost no speech when someone is speaking normally.
This new category would allow people to purchase hearing aids more easily, without the need for a medical evaluation, at a lower cost. The goal is to expand access to hearing aids as the population continues to age.
For children under the age of 18, the FDA requires a medical evaluation statement or signed waiver by an audiologist or Ear, Nose, and throat doctor. This is because the reason for hearing loss in children can be more varied and may be linked with other medical conditions. This evaluation ensures children are getting the treatment they need, and not just addressing a symptom of a larger issue.
Though access to hearing aids may be improving with the FDA’s most recent proposal, the best course of action to address hearing loss is to undergo a medical evaluation to determine exactly what the cause of the hearing loss is so that it can be treated effectively.
Hearing amplifiers are not hearing aids
The important takeaway here is that hearing aids and hearing amplifiers or personal sound amplification products (PSAPs), are not the same thing. Hearing amplifiers are not a substitute for hearing aids. While both hearing aids and hearing amplifiers magnify sound for the user, both were created for different purposes.
Hearing amplifiers were designed to be used by people with normal hearing, or with hearing thresholds of 20 dB or better in both ears, to perform better in certain activities. Hearing amplifiers help users do better in certain situations, like hunting, bird-watching, or listening to lectures. Because PSAPs amplify all sounds, they cannot be worn at all times. In fact, doing so could end up hurting the wearer, as some situations are better off muted – like at a racetrack, for example.
Hearing aids, on the other hand, were designed to address hearing loss and to be worn at all times. The technology used for hearing aids is far more sophisticated, which means it provides a much better experience to the user as well. Hearing aids allow users to set different hearing programs giving them a customized experience. Other hearing aids offer the flexibility to address particular frequencies and even target sounds coming from a specific direction.
If you are experiencing hearing loss, don’t go straight for the over-the-counter solution with a hearing amplifier. See an audiologist instead, who will be able to assess exactly what is happening to design a treatment option that’s best for you.